I've spent the last 24 hours in a full-court press to gather in a meaningful way my rough notes on the Catholic revival that happened in 17th century France. I had promised them to one of our C & G teachers who is going to write an article on the history of the lay apostlate and intentional discipleship.
In many ways, the French "generation of saints" as they are sometimes called (actually there were three generations involved) reminds me of the group that gathered around Wilberforce in the early 19th century around the struggle for social change.
The 66 years between 1594 (when a young Francis de Sales embarked upon his one man crusade to re-convert the Chablis, an area of Alpine France that had been Calvinist for 60 years) to 1660 (when Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marrillac died) was a time of extraordinary spiritual creativity and fruitfulness for French Catholics.
It seems to have been made possible by a confluence of things
- Relative peace and tolerance after years of brutal religious wars between Protestants and Catholics,
- The reforms mandated by the Council of Trent,
- Active support from the Kings and Queens of France and other wealthy and influential patrons,
- Being able to import and build upon innovations from other parts of the Catholic world such as the Carmel of Teresa of Avila in Spain, the Oratory of Phillip Neri in Rome, and the Confraternity of Catholic Doctrine in Milan
- A series of remarkably creative Catholic apostles who knew, influenced, mentored, and collaborated with one another.
The revival in 17th century France saw Catholics rise to meet the challenge of the Reformation and the needs of their time through, among other things:
The implementation of the decrees of Trent re: the establishment of seminaries and the universal formation of the clergy. Several men's communities were founded to form and support diocesan clergy.
The emergence of a truly lay spirituality and a new respect for and openness to collaborating in mission with the laity. The development of missions and retreats for lay people and country parishes. A new emphasis on universal catechesis. The emergence of lay missionaries and missionary initiatives such as the founding of Montreal as a missionary base. The prominent role of married and widowed women in starting and collaborating in many of these new initiatives.
Mission- mindedness. The foundation of a number of new, apostolicly-minded religious orders that were not enclosed and dedicated to work with the poor, the sick, or in education.
A new, systematic, parish-based approach to ministry to the poor
A strong evangelical outreach to Protestants which was a big departure from the usual method of simply enforcing the religion of the ruler upon the people. (In the words of Francis de Sales, "let us see what love will do.")
I wish I had time to share in more detail about some of the incredible people involved and the things that happened in France during this era. But one thing I came away with was the conviction that their time is not unlike our own.
We too are one generation removed from a Council that marks a real change of direction in the Church. We too can build upon many initiatives that have gone before us.
Will someday, scholars write about the apostolic revival of Catholicism in the United States in the early 21st century?